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My Journey: Ian Cawley, The Big League CIC

LARCH interviewed Ian Cawley, Manager of The Big League CIC which runs the Poolie Time Emporium project, supporting local business owners from Bovis House, offering them one-to-one consultancy and low-cost business accommodation. The Community Interest Company (CIC) was launched in 2014, as a community-wide attempt to alleviate poverty and create job opportunities across Hartlepool and the Tees Valley.

Welcome Ian, let’s start with asking what is The Big League and when you set it up?

The Big League was set up 8 years ago, on the back of a Locality programme about Community Organising. One of the challenges was to set something up in the community so myself and a colleague set up The Big League CIC.

It’s done many things, its changed and adapted over the years, the main thing we do is support people in poverty with food, furniture, household support, lots of different things. No two days are the same. We help across the town with different organisations to support the people. We operate mainly in Hartlepool but have different angles to our work. We also do household waste disposal across the North East and house clearances. On the back of that, we recycle any furniture we can in our shop and warehouse. We also have another part of the company that does cleaning and domestic and commercial work across mainly Hartlepool and County Durham.

Tell us about your background.

I didn’t really go to school much, and got no education/ I worked at the shows quite often when I was 13 or 14 instead of going to school. And when I left school I left quite early, the teacher used to mark the register to show I was in when I wasn’t, but I actually had a full-time job. When I turned 18 I joined the army, I did various tours of duty in the Infantry, and did that for 6 years. I came out of the army and went from job to job mainly in construction. I used to drive telescopic forklifts, and work for large companies in chemical plants, concreting and stuff like that.

I haven’t got a background in community work, however with my military background I did work as a community warden for a number of years, I was one of the first in Hartlepool to do that. That got me working in community centres and with the public and that got me interested in community work.

How did that lead you to setting up the Big League?

So basically I had to change my career path to be a bit freer when my first child was diagnosed with diabetes and I didn’t quite understand what it was, when she was 5 years old. My wife worked for the Fire brigade, still does after 33 years, so it was decided I would be more flexible in my approach.

I started working in business, I set up a taxi company, a hairdressing salon, a housing portfolio. Just things where I could be in charge and I could take time out when I needed to, that was kind of where I was going in life. When we settled down and realised we could handle the diabetes, we knew what we do and didn’t need to change our lives as much as we were.

The wife filled an application form out for me to become a community organiser, and got me an interview, which I hadn’t realised! I went for the interview and got the position. It was a year’s training, and basically it stemmed from there. We were asked to set something up or join another organisation and Locality would support us. I chose to set something up and I came up with The Big League. At the time it was around community, health and helping people come together to support each other around health.

It was just a nice little organisation, with 2 members of staff for 5 years and then the pandemic came. I realised early on this was going to be a major thing, so we closed the community centre down to the public and turned it into a store for food. By 6-7 weeks into the pandemic, we were doing 1300 meals and grocery bags a week working across the town with over 200 volunteers. That got us known and out there a bit more, and we expanded from there. We were doing hot meals, everything was free, we were working with the public getting donations, yeah we were really well supported locally. We won a few awards, took over the college, took over church halls, made sure nobody went without food.

Bovis House, Hartlepool

During this time I noticed an opportunity arose to take over Bovis House, it had been empty for nearly 15 years. I got in touch and took over the short-term lease. We basically sold the spaces and when people bought the space to rent from us we built them an office. We ended up with 28 office spaces right in the middle of the town centre and we rented them all out in a couple of weeks, so yeah, that’s how we started.

We’ve gone from 2 to about 40 members of staff at the moment, and we just seem to be growing and growing.

Could you imagine yourself now as a social entrepreneur when you first left the army?

I’ve always just went and done things, I’ve never been afraid to try something. I’m not afraid to fail. With the success of what we’ve done now, there’s many people who are part of that success people who aren’t with us now, or have left the company, they’re all part of the massive contribution to get us where we are.

I’ve been lucky and had good people around me, to support me, and still do. I think it’s the fact that I’m not scared of doing stuff.  I think well what’s the alternative if we don’t do it, or what’s worst that can happen and I don’t fear that. If everything stops tomorrow we did a lot of good, and that’s it that’s all I need to think about all the good we’ve done. This building (Bovis House) is the best thing we’ve ever done and I’m most proud of. It’s been empty for years and years. 

“The government goes on about the High Street and what can we do with the High Street. Well, we’ve done it for next to nothing, literally changed the shape of the High Street, brought hundreds of people every day to our shop, to our businesses, to the businesses that come here, to the Community Interest Companies that are set up here.”

The place is thriving, it’s just non-stop. If there was ever an example of how to change the high street with the third sector this is it. I wish we could replicate or help others do it in other areas. To me, it’s one of the many answers to help save the High Street.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt on this journey?

I think because you will get let down or people will disappoint you don’t let that affect what you do because for every 1 that lets you down 10 won’t. Put your trust in everyone you come across and you’ll be surprised how much payback you get from giving people that little leg up and supporting them. I’m passionate about other CICs and charities doing well, helping wherever I can. Even today I’ve been on to one to help them, trying to encourage them to become more community-minded. As a town, we need to grow that way.

The work with LARCH has opened my eyes, the way they’re trying to support the sector in Hartlepool, I just think is brilliant.

When I first met Neta the conversations we’ve had over the last couple of years have just been so positive. How we can work collectively in Hartlepool, how organisations come together. To me, that’s what we should do. I don’t fear competition. I don’t care if someone repeats this next door to me. I’d be the first person to shake their hand. I think the more we do the better we become as a town, the more we support and help each other can only be good.

Do you have any mistakes or regrets?

I don’t, I probably have made many mistakes, for example, electricity going up in price, I should have got tied into a fixed contract. I don’t regret it, just little things like that. Sometimes you meet people and you think you should have been better with them on that day, but not every day you can be on top of your game, so no, no regrets.

What would you say to someone else wanting to start up their own social enterprise in Hartlepool?

I’ve had conversations today to encourage people to do it. I think the role and route of being a social enterprise is fantastic and the support out there is vast. But it takes people like myself and others to get that message out to people that there is support there, there’s funds there, there’s everything there to do it. It’s not easy but it’s doable. I’m part of and have watched many organisations start from scratch and they’ve grown and grown. There’s a lot of advantages to being a social enterprise, especially the support that’s in the sector. There are many organisations that will help you and don’t want anything, they just want to see you grow.

How has LARCH helped you?

LARCH have really went through and asked me lots and lots of stuff about my organisation. They know I’m a bit footloose and fancy-free and just get on with things! So they just try and shape how I do things and make sure I get the right things in place. Their strength is guiding me there and putting in place the training for my staff to get to the right ways of doing things and being better organised. I’ve had a lot of support from LARCH doing that.

We have the accountant who comes and sits with the staff, and trains them up on different programmes, and I would never have thought of anything like that. Identifying my weaknesses from another organisation, I’m all for it. It’s not just about me, it’s about many people within the organisation, and I think LARCH have been really good in that way.

The journey with LARCH has been a pleasure to be fair. There are ups and downs with everything you do but what we were asking for a lot, it wasn’t a small amount we were asking for. Going through that and understanding we need to change certain things. Neta was really good throughout, she supported us throughout, She was always on the phone had I needed a bit of advice, it made sense and was explained in good detail. We don’t have all the answers but we knew what we were doing, so just having someone scrutinising us was beneficial.

Having someone say you need to be doing this better, or tightening this up, I’m totally all for it. We’re an open book as an organisation. We know we’re not all from the background of CICS and every day is a learning day. We’re more than willing to do that.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m pushing on different fronts with different plans. I’m trying to connect with different organisations around setting up a community wind farm. I’m at the very early stages and I’m really passionate about it. I think we can grow our own energy in Hartlepool, and supporting our businesses with their energy can only be a better thing. I know how hard it affected the electricity bills, not just for myself but for many businesses in the town so it’s something I’m really interested in. We’re at the very start of that journey.

But when I start something I give it a good go. I want to do a lot around recycling. I’ve been on this one about recycling mattresses for a year and a half and there are a lot of hurdles to get over. I want to recycle mattresses across County Durham and Teesside I just think it’s a good business and could help and support lots of people. What I’m trying to do is generate more and more income as the more income the more people we can employ and help.

Thank you Ian! Find out more about The Big League CIC.

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